The Museum's African art collection ranks among the nation's oldest and most comprehensive, representing the breadth, diversity and vitality of artistic creativity throughout the continent. Its holdings comprise nearly 4,000 objects of ritual, ceremonial and daily use, as well as popular urban and fine arts. They include outstanding examples of masks and figural sculpture, textiles and dress, pottery, jewelry, furniture, photography and paintings. The works range from historic artifacts, primarily dating to the late 19th and early 20th century, to examples of contemporary artistic creativity. The continental scope of the collection—especially its inclusion of art from northern, eastern and southern African countries—is a particular strength. Its holdings in these areas are unmatched today by most art museums, which historically focused on sculpture from west and central Africa in developing their collections.

The African art collection dates to the 1920s, when the Museum acquired several important early collections. Among these are works from southern Cameroon collected by the missionary Herbert W. Greig, examples of Yoruba art work collected by businessman Walter Dormitzer and objects from northeastern Congo and Kenya collected by the explorer Delia Akeley. The museum's founder, John Cotton Dana, himself made two collecting trips to North Africa in 1924 and 1929 and made substantial purchases, forming the nucleus of the African textile collection. Along with its collecting program, the Museum also demonstrated an early commitment to exhibiting African art. The Museum's African holdings were first exhibited in 1926, when the museum opened in its new building, and the focus of a special exhibition in 1928.

The African gallery showcases works from important art-producing cultures, including the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Asante of Ghana. Among the highlights are a towering Epa masquerade headdress by the renowned Yoruba sculptor Bamboye and a rare Tsogo door from Gabon. A stunning array of jewelry features ivory adornments from the Congo, silver pendants from Niger, beadwork from South Africa and an exceptional suite of gold jewelry from Zanzibar. The gallery also includes select examples from its important collection of African textiles, which has gained national recognition for its fine quality and breadth of representation. The collection encompasses several hundred examples representing most of the significant weaving traditions of sub-Saharan Africa as well as factory printed textiles and historic and contemporary examples of dress from across the continent.

In keeping with its historic commitment to living artists, the Museum's African collection has a growing emphasis on contemporary art work. Its broad range includes popular urban art forms, such as a cement sculpture by Sunday Jack Akpan, as well as studio portrait photography by Seydou Keita and Samuel Fosso. Critically acclaimed art works by internationally renowned artists such as El Anatsui, Sam Nhlengethwa and Wosene Kosrof are also represented.